25th Anniversary: “An Evening to Remember”
BOWEN McCAULEY DANCE COMPANY
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Eisenhower Theater, Washington, D.C.
September 14, 2021
By LUELLA CHRISTOPHER, Ph.D.
A dazzling array of dance genres and musical styles filled the Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday, September 14th as Bowen McCauley Dance Company gave its “final performance” before the shift of its founder, Lucy Bowen McCauley, to a new phase of teaching and mentoring diverse communities in the DMV region. Circumnavigating the globe in part, this ambitious program offered works inspired by Italian/Neapolitan composer Pergolisi’s rendering of the commedia dell’arte story of the stock puppet character “Pulcinella” through its neoclassical remake by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and by Indian movement artist Manish Chauhan making his U.S. debut to music by local tabla percussionist Broto Roy to a disturbing but occasionally mirth-tinged work choreographed to the three poems by Aloysius Bertrand undergirding Maurice Ravel’s solo piano masterpiece “Gaspard de la nuit” and a world premiere of German/Croatian composer Nikola Glassi’s six songs for soprano soloist as reflecting the troubled emotional catharsis of World War II befalling individuals and groups and, finally, to a world premiere of a collaborative work between Lucy and Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz with the Hoppa Project that adapted music from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to the genre of contempomodern ballet while drawing on Turkish folk dance traditions. And, as if not yet enough, Lucy showcased Kardelen Turkish Dance Ensemble of Washington, D.C.’s authentic folk dancing in ethnic costumes to music for violin and percussion played live by the Hoppa Project.
“Exuberant Fanfare” is a delight, especially if one knows the commedia dell’arte background of Pulcinella. It’s a Punch-and-Judy show of romantic entanglements that has incited the animosity of families and rivals, leading to considerable intrigue – Pulcinella’s stabbing, resurrection, and disguise, for example – until his wedding to Pimpinella resolves all issues.
[Though the story is often revisited, as in “The Fantasticks” (my longtime favorite off-Broadway show), “Pulcinella” is not my favorite Stravinsky composition. His atonal, dissonant works came later and were choreographed by George Balanchine in a 1971 New York City Ballet Festival that featured most if not all of his known compositions. That said, I grew to admire Lucy’s adaptation of the ‘Suite Italienne’ from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” via Pergolisi while studying the video at the one-month post-performance mark.]
Lucy knows better than most how to achieve the marriage of music and dance, frequently with a strong infusion of drama. (Like this writer, she is an Interlochen, Michigan graduate, although of the year-round Arts Academy that began shortly after my two summers studying French horn at National Music Camp.) Dance supported by thoughtfully chosen live music in BMDC performances continues to define Lucy as a choreographer and inspires ongoing critical acclaim. Indeed, between performances, Virginia State Senator Barbara A. Favola presented her with a framed copy of Virginia State Resolution No. 742 citing the company’s “contributions to the performing arts and cultural life in Northern Virginia”.
Lucy also seems heavily influenced by mathematics and geometry – unsurprising for a person with musical ability. She capitalizes on shifted accents and stressed syncopations, both of which predominate in Stravinsky’s compositions. Wrists are angled. Arms plunge and jut forward as dancers move across the stage in staggered lines. They range from chops and interlocks to scoops and curls. And, arms grind and cross the body, flush with the bold and energetic accompaniment of tricky rhythms.
Elena Olshin in “Pulcinella”
The piece is quite literal in terms of downbeats and yet Lucy also employs counterpoint, even in allegro (fast) sections. Turning hops and stag leaps are both spirited and sedate, with many grand jetés à la seconde (basically airborne splits) and turning attitudes tossed in for excitement. Hitchkicks are propelled forward in supported lifts that are sometimes pulled backwards in the course of partnering. A passé morphs into a low-slung renversé and winds up on the floor. A supported bent-knee on standing leg is combined with demi-pointe turns.
Alison Bartels and Justin Metcalf-Burton in “Pulcinella”.
Near the end of Lucy’s choreography (if following the libretto for the ballet by Leonide Massine that I recently unearthed), attention shifts to a male soloist who dons the crafty persona of Pulcinella. Vividly portrayed by Justin Metcalf-Burton, Pulcinella interacts with his true love Pimpinella, briefly danced by Alicia Curtis. More angled arms are switched from side to side. The whole ensemble then adopts the switching arms as they’re rejoicing at the wedding of the pair.
Music for “Pulcinella” is rendered with both vivacity and pathos by violinist Leonid Sushansky and pianist Carlos Cesar Rodriguez. Lighting design is masterfully realized by Martha Mountain and costume design splendidly by Alicia Curtis, as is the case throughout the evening.
The second offering of the night introduces guest artist Chauhan and choreography by Igal Perry, artistic director of Peridance Studio in New York City. “Mera Joota Hai Japani” – music by Mukesh – is played by tabla percussionist Broto Roy. The traditional Indian drumming leaves one wondering how Roy can summon such extraordinary notes from his instrument, especially rippling effects. For his part, Chauhan – after assuming various stationary poses – brings a chair to center stage that becomes his active prop.
Manish Chauhan in choreography by Igal Perry.
With the chair, he displays pinwheel legs and a backward somersault, as well as an airborne forward somersault. He hugs the chair at the end. This acrobatic maneuvering represents an outgrowth of Chauhan’s self-taught immersion in Mumbai’s urban street dancing, later tempered by the ballet training received in both Israel and Oregon.
Third in the program is the most arduous work of the evening, “Trois Rêves”, set to the alternately sublime and bombastic Ravel piece. It begins with a lyrically balletic revival of “Ondine” (Water Nymph). Lucy’s choice of “Gaspard de la nuit” is notable for its astonishingly difficult articulation by pianist Nikola Paskalov from start to finish without musical cuts or splices. What a treat for choreography grafted onto such a complex composition in this era of often impatient programming when only a single movement of a symphony or concerto is aired!
The first section, “Ondine”, starts and ends with an adage (slow movement) for a trio of female dancers holding attitudes derrière in a line. The overriding impression is one of sea creatures who move synchronously, whether they are fish, anemones or water nymphs. Ravel’s music at this point is infused with melancholy; the lilting descending scales readily evoke flowing currents. Movements by one of the three suggest that arms emanate from the body. Kneeling in attitude on the floor emphasizes her fluid nature, while they all execute body curls in foreword somersaults. Three male dancers enter with swirls and pinwheel arms, shifting weight from one foot to another.
Alison Bartels, Wangyi Ng and Alicia Curtis in “Trois Rêves”.
In the second section, “Le Gibet” (The Gallows), a menacing male figure in black leather attire with gloves – danced by BMDC veteran Dustin Kimball – enters and surveys the scene. Desolate and desperate, it unfolds slowly around an inexorable piano pedal stuck on the B-flat key. The protagonist interacts with the female characters one at a time, poking and pushing each female until she rolls over. Other male characters present themselves as subduers or accomplices of the protagonist, but he overcomes them, too. Nonetheless, the oppressor’s brief reign in the dark night concludes as a noose is slowly lowered from the ceiling and summons him to a final demise.
Dustin Kimball and Wangyi Ng in “Trois Rêves” (Le Gibet).
In the third section, “Scarbo” (Goblin), a male character sleeping with a pillow is introduced. A gaggle of observers creep individually toward the sleeper, some on tiptoe, to learn what or who he is. They consult each other, exhibiting quirky head movements and scampering on their hands in a bent-knee position, as well as approaching or touching him and even leaping over him. The males perform a bevy of stag leaps at mid-stage, as do the females who join them in a merry-go-round formation. Airborne gallops jut forward and in a circle, too. There are turning emboîtes and turning jetés.
Eventually, all those present are situated on the floor and on their backs, presumably dead. Program notes insist that the ballet is not about COVID. It was created during the early months of the pandemic with a preview mounted on May 26, 2021 at the Terrace Theater for a small, mostly virtual audience. Some viewers may nonetheless envisage the ultimate destruction of this cast of characters as symbolizing the more dire outcomes of the coronavirus.
Justin Metcalf-Burton in “Trois Rêves” (Scarbo).
The non-dancing docile sleeper, played by Aaron Bauer, tosses the pillow lightheartedly, but can barely stay awake and collapses on it. A replacement pillow is then lobbed at him by someone in the stage wings to bring this mournful, haunting work to an uncertain and puzzling conclusion.
Company dancers and sleeper Aaron Bauer in “Trois Rêves” (Scarbo).
Lucy leaves many questions about “Trois Rêves” unasked and unanswered. Was the protagonist in “Le Gibet” condemned to die from the beginning or is he just a malevolent creature of the night? Was it all a dream of the sleeper in “Scarbo”? Is he the Goblin or just a parody of one? Owing to their heavy dependence on a quasi-narrative as outlined by the poet Bertrand when he gave Ravel the impetus for composing “Gaspard de la nuit”, we are left wondering if both the music and its enhancement by choreography are meant to be illustrative in the abstract, deliberately macabre in tandem with Ravel’s mournful and sinister tonal effects, or suggesting an actual historical event with which we may not be familiar.
In this writer’s view, “Gaspard” as Ravel’s piano masterpiece stands unabashedly on its own. As a story or a contempomodern ballet, it’s unsettled. I uncharacteristically offer this assessment as a lifelong practitioner and scholar of both music and ballet who usually insists that music can always be made to serve the more visually impactful art form.
After intermission, the company presented the world premiere of “Imago”, an interactive work for three dancers and onstage piano and singer, performed by Nikola Paskalov, grandson of the German/Croatian composer Nikola Glassi, and soprano Karin Paludin. The six songs include four based on the poetry of H.V. Hunoltstein and two final songs drawn from E. Moerike’s poetry as conceived in 1944 with the horrors of World War II in Europe at their peak. A preview of the work was mounted at Dance Place in November 2019 and contained some translations of the German into English.
The work might aptly be described as variations on a lift for a trio of one female dancer and two male dancers. There are extensions and développés. The woman is carried forward in standing position as well as rocked back and forth. The two men execute splits and rolls on the floor and wind up on their backs with legs straightened and splayed.
The first song, “Abend/Eve” introduces the trio played by Alicia Curtis, Aaron Bauer and Justin Metcalf-Burton. The second, “Mondnacht/Moonlit Night”, gives Curtis a turn as soloist. The third, “Morgenidylle/Morning Idyll”, returns to the trio’s lyrical submersion in soft, curling lifts. The fourth, “Sehnsucht/Longing”, takes place mainly on the floor with the dancers either listening to the singer or watching the male soloist.
The last two songs, “Heimweh/Homesickness” and “Lebewohl/Farewell” are characterized by greater interaction between the singer and dancers. This occurs initially when the singer touches the hands of the girl, who backs off and rushes from the scene, perhaps to a hiding place or, more hopefully, to a reunion with her friends and family. The singer then strides to center stage, seemingly alone for the duration. It’s a subtle but powerful ending.
Unfortunately, full translations of the songs do not appear in the company’s program notes for 2021. Without them, many in the audience at the Eisenhower Theater miss the gravity of the composer’s narrative set in wartime. The lilting and ominous movements of the trio, with the exception of the last two songs, are not enough to effectively carry the work without translations.
Next on the program is a guest appearance of the Kardelen Turkish Dance Ensemble of Washington, D.C. and a world premiere of “Insistent Music” by Bowen McCauley and Eryilmaz with a composition written especially for Lucy. The guest group delivers utter joie de vivre in “Miniatures, Set 6” (music by Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz), played by violinist Erie Chen and Turkish Folk Percussion with Erberk. Dressed in traditional Turkish costumes with soft shoes, the women stomp, flex their knees, and rollick with hands on their hips. Choreographers for Kardelen include Demet Cabar and Yaprak Servi.
Kardelen Turkish Dance Ensemble in “Miniatures, Set 6”.
The final piece of this whirlwind evening is an expanded collaboration between Lucy and Erberk featuring eight company dancers and five musicians from Hoppa Project (violinists Evie Chen and Marissa Ishikawa, violist Korine Anne Krentzman, and cellist Bree Ahern, with Erberk on piano and Turkish ethnic percussion). Lucy takes inspiration from some of the folk moves by the Washington, D.C. ensemble, both interjecting her own touches and incorporating a glimmer of classical ballet, as seen in the partnered arabesque below.
Though difficult for this viewer to identify precisely, the movements encompass dips forward, hopping walks, arms clasped or crossed at chest level, turns ending in passé followed by a loose version of fondu, arced and pinwheel arms, thumps, and dragging of female dancers by the men. Some moves appear to mimick forms of architecture that might be seen in any Middle Eastern country.
The third section of “Insistent Music” features women alternating arms downward on the beat, men transiting through twisting knee-bends, cocked heads on sideways steps, and one woman carried in a splayed position. The striking golden orange and green backdrop changes to blue as the music becomes increasingly frenzied and changes one more time to predominantly red in the finale. Mountain and Curtis offer lighting and costume design one last time, while William H. Brakefield provides the set design as well as the gorgeous scenic construction, aided by Christina Curtis.
The company’s exuberant work pummels the audience with a kaleidoscope of nonstop accented action ranging from “washtub” and spiraling pinwheel arms into slides and arabesques as well as slides through the legs of others and, finally, to twin pairs of dancers supporting the women in splayed-leg positions evincing bent knees. Even corkscrew-style jumps!
At this juncture, I am convinced anew that Lucy is inventing an original dance vocabulary in more than one genre to sustain her supporters well beyond the “second act” of steering her company through a fruitful run of twenty-five years. I thus heartily join in shouting theTurkish equivalent for “Let’s Get Going”: HOPPA! Afterall, pushing artistic boundaries and personal limits is exactly what they teach in the first act of early training at Interlochen.
Patrick Green (foreground) and Justin Metcalf-Burton in “Insistent Music” & Dustin Kimball and Alicia Curtis in “Insistent Music”.
All Photos by Jeff Malet
Copyright ©2021 by Luella Christopher